URI Graduate School of Oceanography increasingly turning its attention to undergraduates, too

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – January 20, 2010 – Despite its name, the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography is not just for graduate students. It is increasingly providing undergraduate students with opportunities to learn about and explore the world’s oceans, too, in the classroom and lab and aboard research vessels traveling the globe.

Last semester, 341 students were enrolled in a wide variety of undergraduate oceanography courses taught by GSO faculty members. These courses include freshman-level classes open to all students as well as upper-level courses targeting students in particular majors.

“I know that most people are surprised to learn that some of our faculty have been teaching undergraduate courses for more than a decade, and more faculty will be teaching new courses for undergraduates in the coming semesters,” said David Smith, associate dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography, who teaches an oceanography course for undergraduate ocean engineering students.

GSO recently established a Committee to Engage Undergraduates to examine the current level of involvement of its faculty with undergraduate education and seek ways to enhance it. In particular the committee will look at the possibility of offering courses for sophomores and juniors that will make it easier for undergraduates to earn a minor in oceanography.

In 1996 when then-dean Margaret Leinen put out the call seeking GSO faculty members to teach additional undergraduate courses, two of the first to step up were Steven Carey and Haraldur Sigurdsson, volcanologists who had previously only taught graduate students. Their popular freshman course, Volcanoes and the Environment, introduces students to how volcanoes influence the global environment and human populations.

“We love volcanoes, and it’s a topic of interest to almost everyone. And it gave us an opportunity to highlight our research,” said Carey. “The class attracts students from all majors, with only a small percentage of them having much background in science or math, so it’s a challenge every year to make the content meet the capabilities of each incoming class. We want to make it accessible yet challenging.”

In 2009, with the recent budget cuts and the retirement of many URI faculty members, another call went out seeking additional GSO faculty to teach undergraduate courses. Several heeded the call.

New this year, for example, was a freshman-level class in ocean exploration that was taught in the fall by GSO professors Robert Ballard, Steven D’Hondt and Christopher Roman. Eighty-seven students enrolled in the course, which used case examples to describe, examine and dissect authentic ocean discoveries, including an overview of the methods, technology and science involved.

In addition, a new undergraduate honors course, Climate Change Through Earth’s History, was taught in the fall by Rebecca Robinson, assistant professor of oceanography. Among other oceanography courses offered to undergraduates are The Ocean Planet and Oceans, Atmospheres & Global Change, both for freshmen, and Deep Sea Biology for senior marine biology students.

“There’s a lot that we do here at GSO that is of interest to undergraduates, and these courses help them understand what’s going on in the world’s oceans and how it relates to their world,” Smith said.

URI undergraduate students are also finding increasing opportunities to conduct research alongside graduate students and faculty at the Graduate School of Oceanography. For the last several summers, at least six undergraduates in the Coastal Fellows Program participated in research with GSO faculty and students. Undergraduates may also receive academic credit for their work in GSO research labs.

“These students are a valuable resource. They are motivated students seeking lab experience, and our faculty can always use an extra set of hands in the lab,” said Smith. “They conduct real research – not just a demo in a class – and they are held accountable for their work.”

Another dozen undergraduate students from top universities around the country spend three months in the summer conducting research with GSO faculty as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in Oceanography program. Coordinated by GSO Associate Marine Scientist Robert Pockalny, these highly competitive fellowships require students to live together, attend regular lectures, learn to design experiments, and in some cases go out to sea on a research vessel.

Several of last year’s fellows presented the results of their research at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, the largest gathering of scientists in the world.

“The big difference between working with graduate and undergraduate students is in motivating the undergraduates and keeping their interest,” said Carey, who teaches the undergraduate volcano course. “The amount of information coming in to students these days is phenomenal, so vying for their time and attention is difficult. It’s a challenge to find a niche to keep their interest. But it’s a challenge we’re happy to accept.”